WORM’S EYEVIEW: You can’t rely

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 23 June) – We often forget that, all things considered, only the people can ensure honesty in government. And any government that does not observe the requirement of transparency in its operations and accountability for its actions cannot be trusted.

There is so much at stake in operating and maintaining a government. Public assets and resources can be privatized, wasted, or depleted. Facilities can be misused or abused. Functions and responsibilities can be mishandled. Services can be overlooked or neglected. Public trust can be taken for granted, compromised, or betrayed.

Officials always face temptations to commit graft and corruption. There are myriad opportunities to hoodwink the public and take advantage of their trusting nature. Many enticements are offered to violate one’s oath of office including bribery and intimidation. And of course there’s so much money that can be misused, mishandled, or stolen.

Government officials are only human, subject to needs that may be difficult to deny or suppress. They have to cope with insistent demands and could give in to pressures, thus susceptible to tendencies or weaknesses that everyone is heir to simply by being human.

For these and other reasons, citizens must be attentive to government officials and participate as much as possible in the governing processes. To repeat: so much is at stake. And the people’s welfare is involved.

Even the government of the barangay is vulnerable. There are many cases where barangay facilities and finances are virtually privatized by the officials, treating them as if the same are theirs; on occasion, they even bring equipment and supplies home when no one is watching. It happens because of lack of participation, interest, or vigilance on the part of their constituents.

Where constituents do not participate or are inattentive to the business of governance, badly-motivated officials can abuse their duties; those with weak character succumb to temptation and “offers they cannot refuse.”

The abuse is not always deliberate or intentional. It could be due to absent-mindedness or carelessness. It could be forgetfulness about procedures, or ignorance of some rule or regulation. Bad habits and bad influences also play a part, driving them to do unauthorized or irregular acts.

That’s why we say, “Government is everybody’s business; if you’re not involved, no one can expect good governance.”

Another thing to keep in mind is that it is not always possible, especially for an individual citizen, to be mindful of the entire government. Minding one’s immediate government—the barangay’s—is all that can be realistically expected of everyone.

In any case, it is not necessary to snoop into the operations of the upper-level governments. Our political system already provides mechanisms for vigilance and oversight over high officials, municipal and above.

At upper level, the need for vigilance and oversight is fulfilled by the nature and operation of the system of separation-of-powers, i.e. the executive branch is separate from the legislative and the judicial, each one having power to check the other two, to question their decisions and acts, or to neutralize any wrong-doing by them.

Each branch of the higher units of government is headed by a separate official: the chief executive, the legislative head, and the judicial head with their own set of powers and duties.

In contrast, the functions of these three branches of the barangay government are not separate. All three are presided over by one and the same official: the Barangay Chairman. He is chief executive, chairman of the Sangguniang Barangay (legislative), and chairman of the Lupong Tagapamayapa (judicial).

In other words, the barangay has a parliamentary form of government: no separation of powers and no built-in checks and balances to assure transparency or accountability to its operations. It is a system that requires citizens or constituents to be responsible for their own government, providing it the checks and balances necessary for good governance.

Unfortunately, this unique system of government in every community is not well understood and no one bothers to explain it. Consequently, it is generally ignored, overlooked, distorted, and blithely violated.

As a result, Filipinos—citizens and officials alike—remain unfamiliar with the parliamentary form of government. Worse, because the powerful grassroots parliament (Barangay Assembly), which is every community’s legislative governing body, has never been properly activated. It has remained inactive since it was ordained by the Local Government Code in 1991.

It is such a great pity that this has remained neglected! General ignorance of the barangay’s unique system of government has deprived our society of a mechanism whereby the people themselves can check corruption in the community. This is the one institution that can enable any Filipino if he so desires to review and legitimize the acts of his immediate government.

It is an unforgivable bastardization of an otherwise sound local government system, a parliamentary form for the grassroots.

Successive administrations have condoned this malfunctioning of the barangays, distorting the implementation of the Local Government Code year after year. And so there is nothing to temper the barangay chairman’s exercise of his powers and no formal body to approve or disapprove his acts. They cannot even perform their role in legitimizing the acts of their community’s chairman and sanggunian, effectively turning the barangay into an oligarchy ruled by petty dynasties.

Millions of pesos are handled by barangay leaders; amounts that ought to be reported, explained, and accounted for. But there is no transparency or effective accountability in handling these.

So you can’t really trust government. And as long as the system is dysfunctional, there’ll be no end to corruption and horrible scandals involving dishonesty in our society.

[Manny is former UNESCO regional director for Asia-Pacific; secretary-general, Southeast Asian Publishers Association; director, Development Academy of Philippines; member, Permanent Mission to the United Nations; vice chair, Local Government Academy; member, Cory Government’s Peace and Development Panel, and PPI-UNICEF outstanding columnist awardee. [email protected]]